It’s not quite accurate to say that Daniel White, better known as “The Blackalachian,” had never before spent a night outdoors before embarking on the Appalachian Trail. A few days prior to beginning the nearly 2,200-mile trek, he pitched a tent and slept in his backyard, his first taste of the life he would experience for the next five months.
As an Asheville native and self-described “goldmouth rapper” who grew up in the historically African-American neighborhood of Shiloh, White says he had “no idea” about what awaited him in the wilderness. But in January 2017, when he posted a simple query on Facebook in frustration with political divisiveness — “I wonder if I could survive in the woods?” — a challenge from his cousin to “Go hike the Appalachian Trail” planted the seed for a radical change of pace.
White recently shared his unlikely path to the woods with the Dogwood Alliance as the latest entry in the conservation nonprofit’s Stories Happen in Forests video series (avl.mx/5n7). According to Amanda Rodriguez, the Asheville-based organization’s marketing director, the short films help viewers realize the importance of wild places beyond the usual environmentalist talking points.
“People have a lot of unexpected, surprising, beautiful and heartwarming stories that happen in the forest,” Rodriguez says. “It’s not just about acres and clean water and deforestation: It’s also about the really unique human connection that people have with forests.”
The series, launched in April 2017, highlights the diversity of those stories by featuring speakers of different ages, races and life backgrounds. In one video, for example, Noah Davis explains how he struggled with drug addiction and alcoholism before entering wilderness-based therapy at the now-closed Four Circles Recovery Center in Henderson County.
“The woods are more than just somewhere to go fish, hunt or play,” says Davis. “It’s where I can go and my brain stops spinning.”
In another entry, local fifth-grader Lila Finlay shares how her participation in Muddy Sneakers, a Brevard-based environmental education program, helps her understand the real-world basis of what she learns in science class. Yet another video focuses on the reprieve that retired environmental biologist JC Woodley found in the woods after being diagnosed with polio as a child.
This variety of voices stands out, says Emily Zucchino, Dogwood Alliance’s community network manager, when compared to the historically white and exclusionary environmental movement. “This movement has suffered by failing to bring in the diverse expertise and diverse voices that it needs to be successful,” she says.
White agrees that representation is critical for encouraging a broader base of forest advocates. “You won’t go to a place where you don’t feel welcomed or you don’t see anyone that looks like you,” he says. “That’s not on one single person; I’m not putting the burden on all white people and saying, ‘You need to make it more inclusive.’ I’m just saying, representation matters.”
The hiker notes that race did play a role in his journey along the Appalachian Trail. From daily microaggressions like being asked why black people don’t hike to being driven from a campsite by men “howling like wolves” just a mile south of the Mason-Dixon line, White’s experiences made him question if the woods were an inclusive space.
But by documenting his own hike on YouTube and Instagram, as well as sharing the story with Dogwood Alliance, White hopes to shift the impressions that people of color have about the outdoors. “Nine times out of 10, it’s good people out there,” he says.
Zucchino says that Dogwood Alliance will continue to make new videos that represent the full spectrum of people who use the forest. Additionally, the nonprofit is working on a compilation of its 12 current videos, which it may submit to film festivals or screen together with live storytelling events.
Storytelling, Zucchino says, “taps into something that speaks to people — and not just our traditional base of supporters who are already green allies.” She notes that the video series has become one of the nonprofit’s most popular and powerful promotional efforts.
“Rather than focusing on what can be really depressing and negative around forest destruction and community destruction, [the videos] help us remember that we fight for forests so that people can continue to have stories like this,” Zucchino says. “It’s a beautiful thing that we’re fighting for.”